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Boreal Community Media

Cook County Higher Education advances learning and creates careers

Jan 16, 2022 07:16AM ● By Editor

Photos: CCHE

Exclusive to Boreal Community Media - By Rae Poynter - January 16, 2022


In 1996, a new nonprofit organization was established in Cook County: Cook County Higher Education (CCHE). At the very tip of Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region, Cook County had long been isolated from opportunities for higher education. A several-hours drive from the nearest community college, there was a big need for greater connection to educational resources in the local community. Although an early 1990s assessment revealed that Cook County could not support its own community college, it led to the birth of the Cook County Higher Education Project, which would later become CCHE. Originally run by one part-time staff member, CCHE has grown and evolved to become what it is today: a nonprofit that aims to serve the educational needs both big and small of everyone in the community. 

The staff of CCHE. Photo: CCHE


Facilitating Higher Education

Karen Blackburn, Executive Director of CCHE, said that today the organization provides all sorts of educational opportunities to the community, from academic support for high school students to classes open to the whole community.

“We do everything. Anything to do with education, I feel like we take care of it,” she said.

Karen Blackburn (left) and Kelsey Kennedy raise community awareness of higher education opportunities by distributing CCHE tote bags at a Ruby Tuesday's event in Grand Marais.  Photo: CCHE


As the name would suggest, Cook County Higher Education has been instrumental in helping community members achieve their education and career goals, with many local learners starting and completing their degrees right from Grand Marais. When CCHE first started in the 1990s, it was an era where not everyone had a computer at home, and those that did have a computer and internet access had dial-up from their landlines. As technology has evolved and changed over the years, CCHE has changed right alongside it. Some early solutions to connect learners to outside resources included providing access to a computer or the internet, or holding ITV classes and bringing in college courses that people could attend in the evenings. 

Today, CCHE offers a wide range of support for those pursuing higher education, from help with FAFSA applications to tutoring and editing essays. They also offer scholarships for Cook County residents that are going to school long-distance, as well as textbook and trade scholarships.

For local resident Kirsten Pederson, CCHE has been instrumental in her path of pursuing social work. Currently taking classes through Alexandria Technical & Community College, Pederson has been able to do 100% of her schoolwork online from Cook County. She said that the staff at CCHE has helped her throughout her journey, from picking the right school and filling out applications to providing testing spaces and connecting her with a math tutor.

“I am just so thankful that we are lucky enough to have this amazing service in our little town,” Pederson said. “I am a firm believer that if you have a dream of getting a college degree that CCHE will do everything in their power to make that dream a reality. I want to thank everyone at CCHE for being a huge support to me through this amazing journey of education.  Also I want to thank the Lloyd K Johnson scholarship foundation for making it financially possible for me to get my higher education.”

One of CCHE’s key programs over the years has been their nursing program. Kelsey Kennedy, Program Director - Associate Director for CCHE, said that for many years they have offered programs for local residents to become nursing assistants and home health aides.

“You take what is roughly a three-month program and you can turn it into a life-changing career path,” she said. 

 The Board and staff of Cook County Higher Education.  Photo: CCHE

According to Kennedy, Mark Abrahamson–CCHE’s longtime nursing assistant instructor–conducted a count of local healthcare workers and found over 40 nursing assistant graduates who were still actively working in the community. Some nursing assistant graduates have also gone on to become LPNs and RNs, and even some of that training is able to be completed locally. 

Local resident Rob Wells is a nurse who began his healthcare career here in Cook County. While working at Lutsen Resort, Wells had the opportunity to take a first aid course in preparation for leading trail runs for resort guests. The first aid course sparked a bigger interest in healthcare, and he then decided to become a first responder and firefighter with the Grand Marais Fire Department. In 2015, after spending time helping a friend who was ill and learning about how short-staffed the nursing departments in the county were, Wells started to seriously consider nursing as a new career parth.

 A CCHE training presentation.  Photo: CCHE


“I approached CCHE about getting into prerequisite courses and how to apply for scholarships, and I was really amazed with how easy it was to apply and get registered for everything,” Wells said.

He began a three-year nursing associate’s degree program through Lake Superior College, the first year of which was able to be done online from Cook County. Wells said that scholarships from the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation and the Wes Hedstrom scholarship paid for most of his tuition. 

Today, Wells is working as a nurse in Cook County and doing online coursework to complete his bachelor’s degree in nursing through Minnesota State University, Mankato, and he has also started another role: teaching with CCHE.

“Earlier this year, Karen and Kelsey asked me if I would be willing to be certified to teach CPR. The CPR classes had been cancelled for the past year because of COVID, and they had a lot organizations that were interested in having people be certified again,” Wells said. “So, I got certified to teach in May, and over the last six months, we've managed to get about 150 people in the county CPR and first aid trained.  We've done classes all over the county four times up in Grand Portage, twice in Lutsen, and maybe six or seven times in Grand Marais.  It's been a lot of fun so far, and it's been great to get so many people trained in the county.”

Removing Barriers for the Whole Community

While CCHE is perhaps most known for helping community members achieve their higher education goals, they also do much more than that, from providing community access to computers and printers to test proctoring and tutoring. 

“When people think of Cook County Higher Ed, they sometimes think of it as something that’s limited and always seems to not include them,” said Kelsey Kennedy. “But the answer is that’s not true–it’s for everyone.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic brought a disruption to many areas of life, including learning, CCHE been working to help make learning even more accessible to everyone in the community.

“Our slogan is ‘Education Where You Live’ and I always laugh these days because it truly is education where you live, not where I live or where our building is,” Kennedy said. 

The mass adoption of Zoom during the pandemic helped CCHE pivot to providing online lifelong learning classes, which are open to everyone. The online option for lifelong learning has made the classes more accessible to people who live farther away from Grand Marais or have other barriers that make it difficult to attend classes on campus. Kennedy said that people can tune in and listen while classes are happening live, or access past courses through CCHE’s online library of recorded events. Available on their website, the recordings include events on a wide range of topics from local history to language learning to tips on using Power Point. 

In addition to offering more courses online, CCHE also has a scholarship program for people wanting to attend their events. Karen Blackburn said that they offer 50 to 100% scholarships on everything, which has been funded through donations from the business community. 

But while Zoom has made learning more accessible for some people, the mass transition to online work and learning also posed new challenges for other community members, particularly those without access to reliable technology. Blackburn said that they talked with families who had multiple children but only one computer, with some students trying to complete their online schooling on a smartphone. 

To address this need, CCHE started the Refurbished Laptop Program, initially purchasing 40 laptops from PCs for People in St. Paul. They offered the laptops for $150 each, and along with a no-requirements scholarship of $100, community members could purchase a laptop for just $50. Blackburn said that they were gone immediately, and so they purchased more. 

“Almost two years later we have sold about 250 laptops, and we’ve really been able to reach a lot of people in the community who never knew we existed,” she said. 

The laptop program has not only helped young students attending school, but has also connected older community members to long-distance family and friends and to telehealth doctor appointments.

These past few years have seen more people attending CCHE courses and utilizing their services. But even when looking at the increase in numbers, Kelsey Kennedy said that it’s the personal stories that matter the most.

“It’s really the individuals I think about, and the individual stories that almost bring us to tears and motivate us to do the work we’re doing,” she said. “It’s those subtle moments of difference like someone not having to pay out of pocket to get help. We are the advocates for our community members and for our students, making sure that what they want happens and that we are doing best by them. That is what makes this job incredibly powerful.”